Philip Eade, so his publisher tells us, has worked as a barrister, an English teacher, and a journalist, which makes him particularly suitable as a biographer of Evelyn Waugh, who in his time was a gossip columnist, a war correspondent, and a teacher at an extremely seedy boarding school in Wales, an institution that he lampooned hilariously in his first novel, Decline and Fall; he was also violently capricious, and had he not found God and art he might at one or another stage of his life have been in urgent need of a criminal lawyer.
It was said of T.S. Eliot, whose poetry Waugh, surprisingly, held in high esteem, that he had the dark and stealthy demeanor of a murderer living in constant expectation of the body of his victim being found; Waugh, for his part, looked like a man with a longing to do fatal harm to a great many people, including even some of those close to him. Yet he was cherished by friends and grudgingly admired by his enemies. After his death, his longtime agent A.D. Peters wrote: “I loved him and I shall miss him for the rest of my life.”
How to account for our continuing fascination with this first-rate novelist but not quite first-rate artist? His books are very fine, and among them are a number of blackly comic masterpieces and a masterly war trilogy; however, what he called when he was writing it his opus magnum, the World War II extravaganza Brideshead Revisited, his greatest critical and commercial success, is, despite many wonderfully sustained and beautifully written passages, a soggy mess: sentimental, queasily religiose, self-indulgent—as he later came ruefully to acknowledge—dismissively class-conscious, in places embarrassingly melodramatic, and in other places just plain silly. His lofty position in twentieth-century English letters is assured by such novels as his brilliant debut Decline and Fall and Scoop, in which he eviscerated Fleet Street journalism in the 1930s, and by the Sword of Honour trilogy, which in its elegantly bleak and comically absurd fashion expresses more about the nature of war and warfaring than Hemingway and Clausewitz put together.
He was the leading writer of fiction among his English contemporaries—Graham Greene considered him the greatest English novelist of his day, which says a lot, and probably a lot more than Greene intended—yet he seems to us now more an eighteenth-century figure, sozzled half the time and the other half frantically industrious, a professional to the tip of his pen, with something of Dr. Johnson’s melancholia and of Burke’s sublime conservatism. He had no Flaubertian flounces: he wrote to be successful, to be acclaimed, and to make money. When he was starting out, milking the lavish success of Decline and Fall for all there was to be got out of that abundant cash cow, he could dash off a couple of thousand words in a couple of hours for the Daily Mail—the model of course for Lord Copper’s Daily Beast in Scoop—and by the end, when he sank into drunken lassitude and despair, he had produced, with seemingly automated regularity, a succession of novels, short stories, biographies, travel books, volumes of war reportage, and, away from the public world, thousands of superbly entertaining letters to friends, detractors, fellow writers, and rivals.
He was a great hater—see his terrifying glare in the photograph taken of him by Cecil Beaton, one of the earliest victims of his enmity, which appears on the cover of Eade’s book—but also an entranced lover. One of the troves of original material that Eade was allowed to plunge his biographer’s hands into is the cache of more than eighty letters that Waugh wrote in his late twenties to Teresa “Baby” Jungman, with whom he was deeply, and hopelessly, in love. Some of these letters are remarkable for the extremes of feeling they reveal, from joy through anxious neediness to the most abject sorrow. We may think it wise to keep in mind that they were written by a young man in a period that went in for extremes, but all the same they surprise by their intensity; they also indicate that blame for the bitterness of spirit that set in about this time, and that endured throughout his life, cannot all be laid at the feet of his flapperish first wife, Evelyn Gardner—Shevelyn, as their friends called her—whose affair with a man they both knew as a friend brought the Waughs’ marriage to a disastrous close.
More so than in most cases, we find in Evelyn Waugh the truth of Wordsworth’s dictum that the child is father of the man. As Eade shows, and as Waugh himself confirmed in the first volume of his unfinished autobiography, A Little Learning, the milieu into which the novelist was born, in 1903, was essentially Victorian. His birthplace, Hampstead, now one of the most fashionable and expensive suburbs of London, was at that time little more than a village, while nearby Golder’s Green “was a grassy cross-road with a sign pointing to London.” His father, a more or less successful publisher and a minor man of letters—he estimated at the end of his life that he had reviewed some six thousand books—presented himself as a cross between Dickens’s Mr. Pickwick and Matthew Arnold’s father, the mildly reformist headmaster of Rugby School.
Arthur Waugh delighted in gathering his family together of an evening and entertaining them with histrionic readings from his favorite authors. He was prudish and conventional, and seems never to have strayed far off the primrose path that life had set him upon—although there was an incident with a masseuse, a “smiling little fairy of about 23 fair springs” who worked upon his “hinder parts” in treating his rheumatism. This treatment afforded him “the deepest enchantment I have ever undergone, but my conscience has tortured me ever since.” As we see, his son did not have far to look for comic characters.
Evelyn was the second of Arthur’s sons, and the least favored. Alec Waugh, later to become a prolific and highly successful popular novelist—he wrote Island in the Sun, the movie version of which made him rich—was the sweetest apple of his father’s eye. In later life Arthur wrote to Alec’s son: “The three great things in my life have been my Mother, my Wife, & my son—your father. Nothing else has mattered much to me but their love.” As Philip Eade comments, “It was as if Evelyn had never existed.” The boy Evelyn, however, had ways of getting his own back on his neglectful pater; at the age of eleven he assured a family friend, “Terrible man, my father. He likes Kipling.” Alec himself seems to have done nothing much to make his little brother feel cherished—from boarding school, his infrequent communications with him would be addressed to “Dear It”—although both wrote with restrained fondness for each other in their respective autobiographies.
None of Waugh’s numerous biographers has had much to say about his mother, Kate; this is probably because she disliked writing letters, and so left little in the way of documentary evidence of her character or her interests. Anyway, in those days wives, like children, were meant for the most part to be seen and not heard. However, Kate Waugh seems to have been a lively and, insofar as it was allowed, independent woman—Evelyn described her as “small, neat, reticent and, until her last decade, very active.” Her own mother had been genteel and slovenly, and as Evelyn wrote, “It was an early principle of my mother’s in domestic matters to ‘think what mama would do’ and to do the opposite.” He remembered her as always busy about something, sewing, making jam, clipping her poodle, “and with hammer and screwdriver hanging shelves and building rabbit hutches from packing-cases.” It was surely from her that Evelyn inherited his manual dexterity—at one point in his young years he toyed with the notion of becoming a cabinetmaker.
Alec had been sent to his father’s beloved alma mater, Sherborne, a well-respected public school in Dorset near the English southwest coast. At first all went swimmingly; to a friend Arthur confessed that he had “built my earthly hopes” on Alec, and the father was overjoyed when the son not only won the school’s senior poetry prize, as he himself had done, but also achieved considerable sporting success.
Naturally, Evelyn was envious, and in 1916, in the midst of the Great War, which had adversely affected Arthur Waugh’s earnings, the boy tackled him, saying a friend of his would be going to Sherborne and demanding, in his precociously obnoxious fashion, “Can’t you buck up & do some articles in the Fortnightly so as to be able to afford to send me also?” Arthur, the weary hack, who was preparing to review a no doubt exciting volume called The Soul of Russia, was outraged, and wrote of the confrontation to, of course, Alec, declaring that since he was working so hard “& was dead tired, I felt this insult was about the last straw!”
However, this little storm was as nothing compared to the tempest that was about to break over the quiet house in Hampstead. Alec, though taken up with his verse and the strenuosities of the playing fields, was also active in other ways. He had already enjoyed a passionate dalliance with a boy called Davies—“he is a darling”—and a few weeks before the end of the summer term in 1915 he was, Eade writes, “caught in some unspecified but evidently compromising situation with another boy, Mervyn Renton,” and was promptly expelled. The headmaster wrote to Alec’s father, sparing him the “exact particulars”—one is reminded of little Miles’s expulsion from school in James’s The Turn of the Screw—but informing him, not without sadness, that the star pupil could not be allowed to return.
The father was devastated, but Alec got a novel out of the incident, the mildly scandalous The Loom of Youth, which made his reputation at the age of nineteen. Eventually Arthur forgave the golden boy, and Evelyn was sent to Lancing, which in Decline and Fall he presented, lightly disguised, as “a small public school of ecclesiastical temper on the South Downs.”
Most readers nowadays will be wearied at the prospect of yet another account of life, if such it could be called, in the English public schools. Eade does his best with Lancing and Waugh’s time there; nevertheless the pages devoted to this passage in the novelist’s life do creak somewhat. Waugh seems to have been a devout boy, although in these years he lost his Anglican faith, without the least twinge of anguish, and became a convinced atheist.
Life for him began in earnest at Oxford, and, in a way, it may be said to have ended there also. We have heard much of Oxford between the wars, and if much of it sounds suspiciously like myth, by all accounts it was a golden age. Waugh, at any rate, found himself in his element there. First came drink: “There is nothing like the aesthetic pleasure of being drunk,” he wrote to his friend Tom Driberg, adding that he considered the proper manner of being inebriated as “the greatest thing Oxford has to teach.”
Next came love. Waugh’s friend, and one of his earliest biographers, Christopher Sykes, wrote that Waugh had admitted to him having gone through “an extreme homosexual phase” at Oxford that “for the short time it lasted, was unrestrained, emotionally and physically.” Initially he fixed on Richard Pares, a gifted history student, whose chief attraction seems to have been his submissiveness; a friend later recalled that Pares became “a complete prostitute more from obligingness than anything else.” However, if Pares was Waugh’s first love, he also gave him his first taste of betrayal by deserting him for others, including Cyril Connolly.
Waugh was deeply wounded, but soon afterward he developed an even greater passion for the aristocratic eighteen-year-old Alastair Graham, who was to become, according to Eade, “one of the great loves of Evelyn’s early life” and the model for Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited. Among the illustrations in Eade’s book is an extraordinarily provocative nude photograph of Graham, which might lend credence to Harold Acton’s accusation that he was “a cock-teaser” who possessed, significantly, “the same sort of features as Evelyn liked in girls—the pixie look.”
Waugh himself may not have been a pixie, but certainly he was puckish, with, Eade writes, “ginger hair, big ears and bright, staring eyes.” If like seeks like, then probably it was inevitable that he should fall for a “nice girl” such as the distinctly pixyish Evelyn Gardner, whom he met in April 1927. Shevelyn was the daughter of aristocrats, and Waugh, as Byron said of Thomas Moore, did love a lord. In June the following year the two Evelyns were married; in September Decline and Fall was published, and was an immediate and huge success. Suddenly Waugh was in demand everywhere, and became a highly paid journalist and travel writer.
Another year passed, and one day, out of the blue, as far as Waugh was concerned, his wife confessed that she was having an affair with their friend John Heygate. As Waugh noted later, with sour amusement, Heygate was a descendant of the English diarist John Evelyn, and had very nearly been called after his illustrious ancestor’s surname, in which case the sad triangle would have had an Evelyn at all three corners. On September 3, 1929, Waugh filed for divorce; the couple had been married for little more than a year.
Although Waugh was only twenty-six at the time, there is a curious sense that, for all the good fortune that lay ahead of him, including a second marriage and six children, the rest of his life was largely aftermath. Something in Waugh, something of his essential sense of himself as a man, and even as an artist, had been irreparably damaged. The scar tissue is everywhere evident in his work. For all the glorious comedy in which his books abound, the underlying tone is one of bitterness, of angry sorrow and muffled despair. He would surely have understood that terrible line in Philip Larkin’s brief poem “Wants”: “Beneath it all, desire of oblivion runs.”
Unlike Larkin, Waugh appears to have found a spiritual refuge in religion. Eade pays scant regard to Waugh’s conversion to Catholicism, giving it a mere two pages. However, next to the collapse of his marriage, the “perversion to Rome,” as his shocked father called it, was the most momentous decision that Waugh took in his life—a decision aided and abetted by the Jesuit Father Martin D’Arcy, savior to the celebrated—and forever after, Catholicism was his guiding light in a steadily darkening world, and a shield against that sinful accidie with which he was increasingly beset.
Outwardly he was successful and prosperous, and happy, for a time, at least, after his marriage to Laura Herbert, another nice girl with an aristocratic pedigree. Laura, his “white mouse,” was exactly what he needed:
She has a rather long thin nose and skin as thin as bromo and she is very thin and might be dying of consumption to look at her and she has her hair in a little bun at the back of her neck but it is not very tidy and she is only 18 years old, virgin, Catholic, quiet and astute.
If he did not much care for her family, he did like her home, Pixton Park in Somerset, an endearingly shabby and chaotic establishment that, to the Herberts’ annoyance, he portrayed as Boot Magna Hall, home of William Boot, Scoop’s hapless hero. Whether Evelyn was exactly what Laura needed is questionable, although there is no doubt that she loved him, despite all his difficulties and peculiarities, and bore him seven children, one of whom died within a day of her birth—a tragedy that Waugh, then a soldier away at war, treated with an extraordinary lack of feeling, if his remarks upon it are anything to go by; the only recorded instance of any sign of sorrow is a diary entry: “Poor little girl, she was not wanted.”
It is this controlled tone, along with his genius for black comedy, that distinguishes him as a novelist of the first rank. Had he been less the commonsensical product of a commonsensical family and class, both of which he wanted to leave behind, he might have striven for a deeper artistic insight into the perennial question of what it is to be and to feel—but then, in what gene pool may not an artist be spawned? All the same, it seems not unfair in this case to suggest that before he was an artist he was, above all, a consummate craftsman. Derek Verschoyle, whom Waugh had taught during his dreary days as a schoolteacher, reviewing Scoop for The Spectator in 1938, gave one of the shrewdest judgments on his former master’s work:
His books are so easy to read that it is possible to overlook how intricately they are organised. They are exactly of the length and of the form which their subject requires; there is never a word wasted or an emphasis misplaced.
His religion, too, may have hampered him as an artist. Graham Greene, in a warm tribute written after Waugh’s death, recounted how Waugh had said to him teasingly one day, apropos Greene’s pose as the quintessential Catholic novelist, that it was well for him that God existed, since otherwise he would be rather like Laurel without Hardy. Waugh’s own predicament, perhaps, was that, for all the fervor of his faith, made clear, for example, in his book on Edmund Campion, he was Hardy without Laurel.
Philip Eade has written a brisk, lively, and wonderfully entertaining account of the life of a strange, tormented, unique creature. Through page after page one finds oneself laughing aloud yet again at stories that have been told and retold many times. While previous biographers have been respectful (Martin Stannard) or compassionate (Selina Hastings), Eade seems genuinely to like his subject, and takes Waugh largely as he presented himself to the world. In his preface he writes that his intention is not to offer us a reassessment of Waugh the writer, but “to paint a fresh portrait of the man by revisiting key episodes throughout his life and focusing on his most meaningful relationships.” In this admirably modest aim he has happily succeeded.